Japan's richest man Masayoshi Son takes aim at GM autonomous technology

Son: Billionaire SoftBank founder

TOKYO — Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank upped its position in global automotive last week with a $ 2.25 billion investment in General Motors’ autonomous vehicle business.

That raises a question that has been asked more than once recently in auto circles: Who is SoftBank and why is it buying into the car business?

The outlay hands SoftBank a hefty 20 percent stake in GM’s Cruise Automation venture and follows a string of other SoftBank investments in the hot race to self-driving cars.

Through its SoftBank Vision Fund, SoftBank also has invested in chipmaker Nvidia Corp., a key supplier of autonomous technology, and in the ride-hailing giant Uber Inc., a company with visions of robovehicles. SoftBank is Uber’s largest shareholder, with a 15 percent stake.

The fund also has invested in the European used-car startup Auto1, and in Mapbox, a mapping platform for website and mobile app developers.

The fund is the long-term incubator arm of SoftBank Group Corp., a global holding company with tentacles in everything from telecommunications to microprocessors.

The fund’s mission: Cherry pick top contenders in the high-tech world that will “enable the next age of innovation.”

In addition to transportation, its target sectors include such futuristic endeavors as artificial intelligence, robotics, big data businesses, financial technology and even a field called “computational biology.”

SoftBank’s founder is Masayoshi Son, 60, an entrepreneur and self-made billionaire whom Steve Jobs helped take into new realms of telecommunications back in the day when Japanese consumers were still content using Internet-capable flip phones.

The Apple boss gave Son exclusive rights to sell the newly introduced Apple iPhone in Japan, starting in 2008.

SoftBank's investments focus on innovative technologies.

Son is uniquely positioned for thinking outside the box.

As an ethnic Korean growing up in Japan, discrimination was a fact of life for him — a daily hardship exacerbated by his family’s poverty.

The ever-ambitious Son left Japan to complete high school in the United States, and then study economics and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

There, he became convinced that computers would revolutionize the business world.

Son is now the richest man in Japan, and his SoftBank Mobile is one of Japan’s top cellular services. Its overseas holdings include majority ownership of U.S. mobile phone operator Sprint Corp. The group also operates the Yahoo! Japan web portal and owns ARM Ltd., the microchip designer and Internet software company.

Son’s dive into autonomous driving is a bet on another new future.

SoftBank’s investment in Cruise could open the door for GM to partner with other companies backed by the fund — in everything from the Internet of Things to microchip development.

“SoftBank brings a very broad ecosystem to the table,” GM President Dan Ammann told investors during a conference call. He said the deal offers GM a “unique set of relations” and enhances the company’s opportunity to commercialize self-driving vehicles.

SoftBank’s automotive gambit exemplifies the Japanese company’s obsession with pinpointing the next big thing. And analysts say the tie-up with America’s biggest automaker is a natural.

A homegrown giant such as Toyota Motor Corp., with its own deep pockets, can largely fund investments into autonomous driving by itself. GM is in greater need of outside cash.

“It underlines how expensive all this is and what a strain it is putting on automakers,” said Chris Richter, senior auto analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Tokyo. “Son is investing in a lot of things all over the world. If this works out, he wants to share in the rewards.”

As part of the deal, GM will also invest $ 1.1 billion in GM Cruise. Ammann said the new capital will carry GM “well into scale commercialization” of self-driving vehicles.

Michael Wayland contributed to this report.

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